What Microsoft + Novell Means Going Forward

NEWS ANALYSIS Where there has been an argument about the rights of vendors and suppliers of Linux to produce their various distributions, it has been about whether originators of technology have just as much right to give it away as they do to claim it as their own. It has lately become about whether software is something that can be claimed at all, about whether intellectual property is, by definition, without definition - something so abstract that it cannot be attributed to just one source, to whom fees and revenues should flow.

But in the enterprise data center, there has been no such argument. All this time, in the most influential places in the world where Linux is installed, the arguments which have defined Linux as a movement have had surprisingly little bearing upon how it's implemented. Linux, for them, has never been free anyway - many reputable sources say it's actually more expensive for businesses to own and maintain than Windows.

There have simply been specific scenarios where Linux works better for businesses' servers than does Windows Server, and in those scenarios -- for instance, Web servers and Web services -- Microsoft's inroads have just barely amounted to more than a toe-hold.

For years, the reason businesses have said they install Windows anyway, even on just some of their servers if not the entire domain (or forest), is because they must run Microsoft Office. The Office document has become the critical commodity for global business transactions; and even if OpenOffice or WordPerfect Office works the same or looks the same, it produces something which is not the same.

As a result, Windows and Linux co-exist throughout the back offices of enterprises that must run Windows to be compatible, but must also run Linux to be efficient. For them, the cost of doing business is at its most expensive.

Virtualization, technically speaking, seems like a viable solution: a way to host the functionality of one operating system within another. Whichever system one chooses to play host, the result could be a heterogeneous, though balanced, network that runs both options. And yet what has stood in the way of virtualization in the back office has been the existence of an intellectual property standoff, on the part of two parties who interpret the world of software quite differently - or, at least, purport to in order to appease their respective customer bases.

On Thursday, November 2, 2006, that standoff was broken, at least in large part. Virtualization will become not only less expensive for businesses, but less dangerous. Microsoft and Novell have not only agreed not to fight it out, but to work together for their mutual benefit.

Without a divisive argument to define Windows and Linux going forward, proponents for both sides will now have to resort to more practical means of debating the issue of superiority. Or, quite possibly, the whole superiority question could very quickly become moot, as virtualization could very well rewrite the definition of the operating system as we have come to know it.

"The Microsoft/Novell announcement is an absolute game changer in that it formalizes Linux's position in the enterprise data center," Info-Tech Research senior analyst Carmi Levy told BetaNews this afternoon.

"Microsoft has long floated the fear of developer liability over the heads of open source developers as the basis for its arguments in favor of sticking with fully commercial solutions," Levy continued, "or what it likes to call proprietary source software (PSS). The key issue prior to yesterday's announcement was that open source developers were not protected against legal liabilities arising from potential losses incurred by users of their software."

"The theory was that any latent defects leading to material losses were not indemnified by the vendor who built the development environment. Microsoft further argued that as a developer of commercial, PSS code and tools, it by default indemnified all developers who used its products against potential legal action," added Levy.

"The Microsoft/Novell deal includes a patent covenant that now covers developers who deploy applications into the SUSE Linux environment," Levy concluded. "This will serve as a draw for Linux developers worried about getting sued as a result of their contributions to the community, and could shift the balance away from other Linux distributions and toward SUSE Linux."

As a result of this deal, Microsoft will be paid royalties for Novell's sales of SUSE Linux. A number of sources this morning have argued that this runs contrary to the terms of the General Public License, under which Novell distributes Linux in the first place - essentially, that no royalties change hands, because royalties are an acknowledgement of ownership.

"I expect we'll see a lot of ink spilled about that going forward," said Chris Swenson, director of software research with NPD Group, in an interview with BetaNews. "But these two companies are collaborating. They're talking about licensing patents. Companies can't do that for free. There has to be some sort of financial arrangement, when you're working together. Somebody has to reimburse somebody else for their technology."

" I think both [Novell and Microsoft] will walk a fine line; they're not going to try to patent technologies that are in the open source community," Swenson continued. "But that said, I think they do want to put some sort of protection on those products that they have developed, with their own technology [and] software developers, and maintain their patents and their intellectual property. They can't just work together without trying to protect their intellectual property. It's a delicate balance, but I'm not as worried as some people in the open source [community], that they'll be able to overcome the problems."

Next: Who's concerned about the GPL?

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